I was thinking just the other day about the difference between confession and repentance. Confession is so easy compared to repentance. As churches we seldom talk about repentance and what it really means.
Many times I have used David’s example in my own life of prayer. I have used it in our own Fresh Encounter prayer service. Repenting from sins may not be our favorite way of passing time, but it is necessary. Caring for others is fine, doing social ministry is wonderful, being a part of a great life group is rewarding, but being a Christian also involves preaching – and practicing – repentance.
Eventual Repentance and Restoration
From the life of David we see what repentance looks like. After his adultery with Bathsheba, he conspired to have her husband murdered. Later, the prophet Nathan confronted David about these sins. The child that resulted from David’s affair with Bathsheba was ill at the time of its birth, so the king fasted and prostrated himself before the Lord for seven days. When the child died, David resumed his life. (Read 2 Samuel 11–12 for the whole account.)
When Nathan went before the king with his tale of a poor shepherd whose only sheep had been stolen by the evil herd-owner next door, David got the message. He, with his many wives, had stolen Uriah’s only wife, then had the mighty warrior killed. David broke three commandments. His confession was immediate. So was his absolution. As soon as David said, “I have sinned against the Lord,” Nathan replied, “The Lord has taken away your sin” (2 Sam. 12:13).
The Power of the Decision
It seems so quick. And in one sense it is. The Greek word metanoia means simply, the changing of one’s mind. While one may weigh a decision for days, or even years, the act of changing one’s mind happens in an instant. At some point in time, the decision is made. We are usually aware of it when we make important choices in life.
The Hebrew word shub is more picturesque. It means turning, as in turning around. A person moving in one direction decides to switch directions. If all sin moves us away from God’s will, then the best depiction of this is the about-face. Confronted with our sin and how far from God it has taken us, we confess, turn around, and run back to the Father, who immediately assures us: “Your sin is forgiven.”
In that way, repentance happens in a moment, in the instant when the sinner confesses his sin, turns away from his sin and back to God. But repentance is also a process.
The Process of Repentance
A cursory reading of this account might lead us to believe that David was casual in his confession and too quick to return to his normal life. True, David confessed his sin immediately after Nathan exposed it. His week of fasting and prayer was prompted by the infant’s illness. And he was back to business, to his servants’ amazement, after the child’s death. But Samuel does not record what was happening in David’s heart when he was on his face before God. David himself wrote that account in Psalm 51, the great account of confession and repentance.
First, let’s be reminded that this is not a quick, flippant prayer. This serious supplication is penetrating and rich. It is also beautiful poetry. The psalm’s words, and even its form, help us understand how repentance is a process.
Psalm 51 is an incredible prayer that builds to a peak. Verse 12 is the peak. In the following outline, notice the relationship between the first and last sections (1 and 5) and between the second and the next-to-last sections (2 and 4).
- Prayer for personal repentance (vv. 1–2)
- Confession of the sin that inhibits God’s blessing (vv. 3–6)
- Prayer for restoration (vv. 7–12)
- Thanksgiving and pledge to share God’s blessing (vv. 13–17)
- Prayer for national repentance (vv. 18–19)
Repentance begins with the appeal to God. Our repentance is only possible because of the mercy of God. David invokes not only the name of God, but also His character. God described Himself as merciful (Ex. 34:6–7), and David’s address is a plea for God to act on His mercy. This is not the prayer of one king to another. This is the beseeching of a lowly creature to the Almighty God who created him.
A Clear Intent
Next is a statement of the sinner’s intent. Like a filthy coal miner emerging from the pit at the end of a long, dark day, we want to be washed. We need to head for the showers of God’s mercy, which is fresh and new each day. We need to be cleansed completely. Verse 2 invites God to do all that’s necessary to cleanse David of his sin. The psalmist develops this theme in verse 4. “Cleanse me with hyssop” refers to ritual cleansing. Hyssop was a plant used much like a brush or sponge, which was used to brush or sprinkle blood on the object being cleansed (see Ex. 12:22 and Lev. 14:6–7).
More than a bath, David is asking for a spiritual cleansing. Hyssop connects the cleansing David requests to the sacrifices offered at the temple. Some commentators say it foreshadows the cleansing we receive through the blood of Jesus (see Heb. 10:22; 1 Peter 1:2).
David uses several Hebrew words for sin. As a poet might search for ways to depict the blue of the sky, the sinner grapples with his sin and struggles to describe his deepening understanding of it.
He calls sin “sin,” but also “transgression” and “iniquity.” The words are not exact synonyms. By using these various descriptions, David reveals what he learned about himself in his days face-down on the carpet. David’s understanding of himself as a sinful man is marked by five revelations:
1. All sin is ultimately against God. Although David sinned against people, he ultimately sinned against the One who made them and who made the laws to protect them (v. 4).
2. Human beings are sinners from the beginning. David concludes that he has been a sinner since birth, and has been sinning as long as he can remember (v. 5).
3. People are thoroughly sinful. Sin is not confined to one part of the body or psyche or personality. Sin cannot be compartmentalized – but infects all of the person (v. 6).
4. Sin deserves death. David admits that his sin should require his own life, but appeals to God’s mercy and deliverance (v. 14).
5. Repentance brings us back to God. Ongoing contrition keeps us moldable so that we might hear the voice of God, experiencing His joy as we worship Him through prayer.
Dr. S. Lindsay Taylor has had as a pastoral focus the renewal of local churches. He is the lead pastor of Calvary Baptist in Guelph, Ontario and serves as the president of Strategic Renewal Canada. He is actively involved in conference ministry in Canada, the USA, and different parts of the world. For more information on Lindsay’s ministry go to http://calvaryguelph.com.